Rubio’s Must-Win State Is His Own — and He’s Losing There

By
Marco Rubio campaigns in Spartanburg, South Carolina, USA
Some alarming signs from his home state of Florida may help explain why Marco Rubio has suddenly begun attacking Donald Trump.Photo: ERIK S. LESSER/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

As political observers absorb Thursday night’s tenth Republican-candidate debate and argue over Trump’s untouchability or Marco Rubio’s new fight-club mentality, Nate Cohn of the New York Times takes on the more prosaic chore of examining how, exactly, Rubio might survive a losing streak and still win the GOP nomination. 

The good news he offers Rubio and his growing circle of party and conservative-Establishment fans is that he doesn’t have to win a single state on March 1. 

[I]t wouldn’t be optimal for Mr. Rubio to lose all 12 contests on March 1, Super Tuesday. His chances of amassing an outright majority of delegates, and becoming the presumptive nominee before the convention, would be quite low. But he would still have a real chance to take a clear delegate lead over Donald Trump, and win the nomination.

Rubio’s key to survival thereafter is to take advantage of proportional award systems by exceeding the 20 percent threshold necessary to win delegates in every (or nearly every) state. If he does that, a more ambitious goal may come into sight: edging out Ted Cruz for second place in enough states — especially in the South — to all but knock him out of the race and set up the long-awaited head-to-head competition with Trump.  

On the other hand, says Cohn, excuses for Rubio not actually winning primaries come to an abrupt end on March 15:

Ohio and Florida will award their delegates on a winner-take-all basis. Missouri will award its delegates on a winner-take-all basis by congressional district, and Illinois isn’t much different. North Carolina, on the other hand, awards its delegates proportionally. It figures less prominently in the delegate math and as a result the candidates are unlikely to spend money there on television advertisements or campaign stops.

If Mr. Trump swept the day in the same way he is expected to sweep Super Tuesday, he would net nearly three times as many delegates as he would on Super Tuesday, defeating Mr. Rubio, 282 delegates to 40. For Mr. Rubio, winning Florida would make Mr. Trump’s advantage a more manageable 183 to 139, but his hole would start looking pretty deep.

With that sort of a deficit, Mr. Rubio’s chances of winning a majority of delegates would all but evaporate.

So Rubio really needs to win in Missouri, Ohio, and Illinois on March 15 to stay in the game with Trump (assuming Trump doesn’t stumble on March 1). And it goes without saying he must, must, must win his home state of Florida. Getting skunked there would decimate his delegate math, even if his Establishment friends somehow found a way to madly spin a home-court loss into something other than a disaster. 

Signs are growing, however, that winning Florida won’t be easy for the state’s own junior senator. For months Rubio languished in third or even fourth place in Florida public-opinion surveys. Only with Jeb Bush’s withdrawal from the race — giving Rubio a boost in both elected official endorsements and favorite-son status points — has he begun to rise; a post-Jeb Quinnipiac poll has him within 16 points of the longtime leader in the state, Donald Trump. What should be more troubling to Team Rubio, however, is that Trump is now rivaling him on his home turf in all the indices of basic popularity.

This is made most evident by the very latest Florida survey, from Public Policy Polling:

[Rubio’s] approval rating as Senator has cratered to a 31/55 spread, compared to a much more evenly divided 41/44 when we last polled the state in September. Only 40% of voters in the state think he should continue with his campaign, compared to a 44% plurality who think it’s time for him to drop out. And he narrowly trails both Hillary Clinton (45/43) and Bernie Sanders (44/42) in head to head general election match ups. Rubio’s become quite unpopular at home over the course of his campaign.

Winning has made Trump more popular. 64% of Republicans in Florida now have a favorable opinion of him to only 27% with a negative one. That actually puts him ahead of Rubio’s 60/28 standing.

Let that sink in for a minute. From the very beginning of the 2016 cycle, Marco Rubio’s ace in the hole has been high and positive favorability ratios all over the country. Nobody much disliked him, and that made him the likely beneficiary of the winnowing of the field. Now Donald Trump’s more popular than he is with Florida Republicans, at least according to this one survey. And PPP has more bad news for those who assume the fading of other candidates on and after March 1 will put Rubio over the top:

The most remarkable thing in this poll though is what happens when you narrow the field down to just Trump and Rubio- Trump still leads by double digits at 52/38. Rubio does win over supporters of Cruz (56/25), Kasich (47/32), and Carson (64/21) in such a scenario. But Trump has such a big lead to begin with and picks up enough of the supporters of the also rans that it gives him the overall 14 point advantage.

Is the PPP survey an outlier? Maybe, though the Quinnipiac poll that offered Rubio relatively good news also found that Trump’s “negative score” — the percentage of Republicans who say they could not support him — is now lower in Florida than Cruz’s and not much higher than Rubio’s. That may be the overriding reason Rubio suddenly went after Trump with a claw hammer in last night’s debate. A scenario where the mogul is as popular as Rubio in Florida is simply catastrophic, to the point that Rubio is willing to risk his own warm-and-fuzzies to undermine acceptance of Trump. 

And Rubio can’t entirely count on another strong finish among late-deciders to win Florida for him: Early voting is a very big deal there, with some local election officials estimating a majority of primary votes will be cast by mail or in person before March 15. The option of lying in the weeds and waiting for Trump to self-destruct or for someone else to take him out has vanished for Marco Rubio. He’s potentially two and a half weeks away from watching his candidacy expire where it started.